Travel moment: a glimmer of hope in the mountains of Dali

It was nearing midnight in Dali, an ancient town in Southwest China famed for its laidback atmosphere, cobbled streets and stunning lakeside location. And where were we? Stranded halfway up a mountain, picking our way along a slippery pass in the pelting rain, our only light the torch on somebody’s Nokia – nearly dead. And then – a light.

Today had been a series of errors slyly concealed – and precipitated – by that morning’s glorious sunshine. We’d browsed contentedly in a local market before deciding to walk a well-known trail along the cloud-capped Cangshan mountains.

Such was their height that we’d had to take a fifteen-minute chairlift up the mountain; a few minutes in, the sun disappeared and a violent hailstorm began. Wearing only shorts and t-shirts, in our incomparable stupidity without even an umbrella between us, we could only sit and grimly wait as we inched up the mountainside, gravestone-dotted forest a blur beneath us.

After huddling around a bonfire at the chairlift terminus, devouring noodles while the couple next to us had folded hearts from yuan, we’d decided the best way to ward off pneumonia was to begin the trail, even though it was already mid-afternoon. The chairlift at the other end would’ve stopped, but we could rest at the hotel there

Several hours, thunderous waterfalls and breath-snatching precipices later, we’d arrived to find that, of course, there was no hotel – or phone signal, or signs of life – just a gazebo and a giant chessboard, intriguing but useless in the encroaching cold and dark. There was nothing for it but to retrace our steps to the hotel at the trail’s start.

Soon it was pitch black, and pouring with rain. My four male companions, amused by the situation, had begun to sing loudly, but I was terrified, stalking the mountain and the phone light equally. After several hours of shuffling along the narrow path, even the boys subdued now, the phone had buzzed with a message: ‘low battery’. We’d be blind to the steep drop from the barrier-less track; a few minutes later, the rain had swelled to a near-hail intensity.

I thought we would die.

And then, just as the light was dying, another appeared in the distance, dimly. Nearing, we saw the outlines of a hut; we knocked and, despite the lateness, were greeted by two elderly women who sat us in their kitchen, made us noodles, and offered us their horses to descend the mountain (we declined politely in broken Chinese). After we’d eaten, they piled blankets on two tables in their shed: make-shift beds.

I’ll never forget the relief I felt on seeing that light as ours failed, and knowing that we would not have to inch around the mountain in a vehement downpour. We may well have been fine, but that light stopped us guessing – and opened to us the privilege of the women’s hospitality. Whenever I travel now, I think back to that moment and how lucky I was – and never, never forget my torch.

S McGrath

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